As your GPS directs you into industrial northeast Denver, you’re going to wonder if there’s really a winery out here. Don’t turn back. Balistreri Vineyards, at 1946 East 66th Avenue, is an exceptional, delightful, delicious place to spend the afternoon. And there’s a reason that the winery is nestled among warehouses, greenhouses and wastewater and energy plants.
Along with many other Italian immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century, John Balistreri’s family settled in north Denver, where they grew and sold vegetables. Balistreri opened his own business in 1964, growing and selling cut flowers. At its height, the family business was shipping 10,000 flowers a day to wholesalers.
Although Colorado was once known as the Carnation Capital of the World, the flower business began to decline in the second half of the century as South American growers increased their market share. Balistreri needed to take the business in a different direction. He'd been making wine for family consumption since he was a kid, so with the help of his wife, Birdie, and daughter, Julie, he produced the first vintage for sale in 1998. Two years later, the family opened a tasting room.
Until 2006, the Balistreris were producing both award-winning wine and cut flowers. The greenhouses are gone and the little tasting room is now just the gift shop of a much larger facility with a banquet room, restaurant, wine bar and wine production cellar. There's also plenty of space for private and public events. Last Friday, 180 people showed up for Cooking With Wine, which served dishes created with wine and paired with Balistreri products. (There will be an encore Cooking With Wine on Friday, March 23, at 6:30 p.m.)
The business keeps expanding, but the wines remain distinctly Old Country, made much the same way as John Balistreri's Sicilian family did it for generations. “I make the wines I’m going to drink,” he explains. Balistreri wines contain nothing but the grape — with no sulfites and no added yeast. Natural yeast on the grape skins is sufficient for fermentation.
Balistreri sources 98 percent of its wine grapes in Colorado. The winery produces three amber-colored white wines: a dry Colorado riesling, a Colorado chardonnay, and a Colorado orange muscat (my favorite) — all currently available in 2016 vintages. The wines' darker color and complex, earthy, herbal notes are the result of the grape juice having contact with the skins during the maceration phase of production (which is more common in red than white wine production).
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Each Balistreri vintage of red or white wine is produced from a single vineyard, and each bottle comes from a single barrel and is hand-corked, hand-waxed and hand-stamped with the name of the vineyard of origin. “Our wine expresses the place — the sunlight, altitude and when the grapes were picked,” says the founder's grandson, Raymond Domenico. As if to prove his point, we tasted three syrahs from three different Grand Valley vineyards. Although all three use the same grape varietal, each wine has a distinct taste. The 2016 Colorado Vineyard Specialists syrah has plum and berry notes; the 2015 Avant Vineyard syrah has a raspberry-ish, earthy quality; and the 2015 Horse Mountain Vineyard vrsion has a peppercorn bouquet followed by a silky, spicy flavor.
My favorite Balistreri wine is the 2016 Colorado Zinfandel — a chewy, jammy, delicious wine. The winery also makes a velvety port wine with help from Deerhammer distillery in Buena Vista, which produces the distilled wine spirit used to fortify the port, unveiling not-too-sweet layers of raisin and baked cherry.
On St. Patrick’s Day, the USS Colorado, a Virginia class submarine, will be commissioned in New London, Connecticut. Last December, the sub was christened with a bottle of Balistreri Vineyards riesling; commemorative bottles depicting the submarine on the label are available while they last.
Balistreri Vineyards is open for wine tastings, tours and lunch every day from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For groups of eight or more, call 303-287-5156 to make a reservation.